The Academic-Policy Divide

Steve Saideman on why the gap between academics and policy-makers is steadily shrinking (but not altogether gone).
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November 28, 2012
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One of the recurring rituals for those who study and/or do public policy is to ponder the gaps between scholars and policy-makers and gnash our teeth. In the past few weeks, a series of columns and events have made it clear that it is teeth-gnashing season again. The Paula Broadwell-David Petraeus mess helped to kick-start this conversation since Broadwell, deservedly so or not, reminds academics of the people who look on PhDs as a key box to be checked on their list of qualifications, rather than as the pursuit of knowledge. Robert Galluci, former dean of Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service and now president of the MacArthur Foundation, recently extended the standard critiques of academia: that professors write for the benefit of their fellow professors, that the disciplines refuse to engage each other, that tenure and promotion ignores or punishes policy relevance, and so on.

There is much truth in this, but these generalizations tend to ignore the counter-trends that show, perhaps, that there is significant progress, and that the trends are mostly good ones. These arguments also tend to ignore the other half of the equation – that the policy folks may not be that attentive to, or interested in, an audience. In this post, I consider the various dynamics present today pushing academics and policy-makers to develop better interactions. I will address the other half of the problem next week.

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The first trend, and the one that is the most obvious (even by the very existence of this column), is blogging. Scholars are increasingly reliant on various forms of Web 2.0 – blogs, Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, podcasts, etc. – to share their research and their research-informed outlooks beyond the Ivory Tower. In the dark days of the early 2000s, only a few were brave and bold enough to reach out via the internet. Now, while it is still not quite common, it is no longer rare to see professors at all ranks engaging in conversations beyond the academy via the new technologies. CIC’s OpenCanada is a major initiative, but it is not unique (sorry, boss), as individuals and groups have developed webpages aimed at disseminating their work. 

Rather than meeting the rare government official at a conference or workshop, I engage with people who work in their national capital (Ottawa; Washington, D.C.; London; Canberra, and beyond) on a daily basis via Twitter. While 140 characters per tweet seems like a very poor way to have a conversation, these tweets are really the opening lines to longer conversations that take place via email, phone calls, duelling blog posts, and so on.

The second trend addresses the kind of work we international relations (IR) scholars do. Many of the criticisms of the gap between policy-makers and IR scholars focus on the grand theorizing we do. The problem is that this conception of academic IR is somewhat outdated. While some of the big stars in the field still do grand theory, most of the work being done these days, and being published in the major journals, is at exactly the level that the critics desire – middle-range theory or problem-focused research. Instead of pondering the nature of the international system, scholars are asking questions like, “Does Naming and Shaming Perpetrators Reduce the Severity of Genocides or Politicides?”, “Does Foreign Investment Really Reduce Repression?”, and does foreign aid prevent shocks from causing civil wars? While the research in these articles might not be as digestible by policy-makers as a blog post, these articles reflect the relatively broad trend to focus on real problems of substance rather than just on remote and abstract arguments about ontology (although such arguments do continue). 

The third trend is quite deliberate: Agencies that give scholars grants have increasingly focused on engagement with policy-makers and inter-disciplinarity. I have spent most of my fall semester working on a Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council Partnership Development Grant to build a network of scholars, policy-makers, practitioners (members of the Canadian Forces), and interested parties focusing on Canadian civil-military relations. This grant, and similar ones, requires scholars to engage the public via “knowledge mobilization plans,” and to interact with the policy community in order to get funding. Despite the reputation of professors as being relatively unresponsive to reality, we actually are very, very responsive not just to real events, but also to the changing flows of grant money. The programs of annual conferences in the 2000s suddenly became populated with panels dedicated to terrorism and then to counterinsurgency, for instance.

While there is much room for improvement, including putting a bit more emphasis on policy-relevant work for hiring, tenure, and promotion, it is clear from the behaviour of scholars today that there is a desire (both genuine and strategic) to engage the policy world. Again, we are a diverse community with varying preferences and inclinations. Some of us want attention (perhaps I am projecting) wherever we can get it, while others would prefer to work on the most abstract theorizing. We do not need the entire academic IR community to embrace policy-relevance – just as chemists, physicists, and biologists range from those with clear applications to those focusing on the most basic and least-applied questions. We IR types are learning to talk to the world outside of the university.

The question that remains is whether people in the policy world want to hear what we IR scholars have to say. That is the question I will address next week.